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Tenth Presbyterian ChurchPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania

By November 1, 2009 No Comments

Rittenhouse Square arguably forms
the heart of Center City Philadelphia.
Walking past it on the Sunday
morning of Labor Day weekend is a
counter-cultural experience. Many others
in the city of brotherly–and sisterly–love have left town for a weekend at
the Shore or sit at cafes and coffee shops
reading the Philadelphia Inquirer or New
York Times
. Yet I noticed a steady stream
of people walking with me to Tenth Presbyterian
Church. Looking up I couldn’t
help but notice a much-reduced stately
spire poking above the roofline of brownstones
and row houses.

Like many Presbyterian churches in
Philadelphia, today’s Tenth Presbyterian
is a result of mergers and denominational
controversies. Indeed, Philadelphia
Presbytery offers a 350-page historical
directory that details a number of these
stories. Founded as West Spruce Street
Presbyterian Church in 1856, the church
served as a satellite congregation for the
original Tenth Presbyterian, which was
located at the corner of 12th and Walnut.
The transformation of the eastern portion
of Center City into an industrial and
commercial district drove many original
Tenth Presbyterian congregants to join
West Spruce Street; the two eventually
merged in 1893.

West Spruce hired noted Philadelphia
architect John McArthur (who was also
a church member and deacon) to design
its sanctuary in 1856. McArthur used
an Italianate Revival model that takes
many of the architectural features of the
Lombard Romanesque style, with rounded
windows and doors being prominent
parts of the sanctuary design.
10th Pres
Upon the
1893 merger, McArthur’s interior space
was remodeled to allow for more seating,
and the Italianate interior was significantly
altered to include Tiffany windows
and other trademarks of neo-Byzantine
design. The church’s steeple, once the
tallest structure in Philadelphia until
the new City Hall (designed by McArthur
as well) was built in 1901, collapsed due
to structural decay and was removed in

If the church’s building was embracing
stylish architecture in the early twentieth
century, its theology remained conservative
Presbyterian. The Philadelphia
Presbytery was the seat of conservative
Presbyterianism during the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the 1920s
and 1930s, and Tenth Presbyterian was
no exception. The departure of noted
conservative pastor Clarence Macartney
from nearby Arch Street Presbyterian to
a new call in 1927 led to Tenth becoming
the conservative Presbyterian Church in
Center City, and it has remained so until
this day. Under the leadership of senior
pastors such as Donald Barnhouse
(1927-1960) and James Montgomery Boice
(1968-2000), the congregation blended
conservative Reformed doctrine with
cutting-edge technology, including radio
and television programming, to spread
its message. The church’s membership
continued to grow after World War II, and
ministry efforts to college students gave
the congregation a metropolitan focus. The congregation grew increasingly hostile
to the denomination’s doctrinal latitude,
and after the Presbyterian Church
USA amended the Book of Order to mandate
the election of female elders and deacons
in 1980, Tenth Presbyterian left the
denomination to join the more conservative
Presbyterian Church in America.
After a lengthy property battle that only
Presbyterians seem capable of enduring,
the congregation was allowed to leave the
denomination and keep its building.

Tenth Presbyterian Church has
grown and emerged as a leading “big-steeple”
PCA congregation in the northeast
United States. Many of her pastors
have come from Westminster Theological
Seminary just outside of Philadelphia.
True to PCA form, the ministry is focused
on Reformed doctrine and a healthy engagement
with the community. Small-group
ministries abound for all ages. The
church sponsors an extensive global missions
program. Outreach to the neighborhood
includes a strong connection to
the rising generation of doctors attending
the medical schools in the neighborhood.
Touring the web site and reading
the bulletin, you can’t help but notice the
church’s clear theological foundation and
the abundant opportunities for the body
of Christ to grow in their faith and serve
the community.

This fullness is also evident upon entering
the sanctuary for the 11:00 Sunday
morning service. Warmly greeted by
a wall of women who handed me a bulletin
and gave a welcoming handshake,
I was carried into the sanctuary. As in
most Reformed spaces, the pulpit is front
and center in the chancel, but the Table
and Font are missing. The pews are padded
and there are two side balconies for
those who appreciate a bird’s-eye view.

Conversations percolated ten minutes
prior to worship as the space built
for 700 filled almost to capacity. People of
varying generations, genders, and races
were finding their seats. I was
struck by the large proportion
of worshipers who were
young adults of college age
or recent graduates that kept
streaming in, mostly in pairs.
There was the usual buzz
about the previous week, but
what caught my ear was the
chatter of one college-aged
woman seated in front of me.
She was recounting her summer
to the family next to me,
mentioning her excitement at
working in a clinic but most
importantly the opportunity
she had to share the Gospel.
I was immediately struck by
her testimony and ability to
use her voice to–in effect–preach.

Then worship began, led
by a wall of men in dark suits seated on
the chancel. A quick glance at the bulletin
identified them as three of the six
ministers on staff: Senior Minister Philip
Ryken, Jonathan Olsen, and Paul David
Tripp. (The other three are males too, befitting
PCA rules.) The three also served
as liturgists, calling us to worship with
a Psalm and then inviting us to pray
silently during the prelude. A prayer of
confession was absent from the liturgy,
with the doxology used as a response to
the spoken call to worship. The tone of
worship leadership up to that point was
as muted as the dark suits, yet the service
flowed well with no pauses or awkward
breaks. The tone quickly shifted as
the Westminster Brass ensemble played the introduction to O the Deep, Deep Love
of Jesus
. Everyone rose from their pews,
opened the Trinity Hymnal, and sang
with gusto. The sound of the brass, organ,
and robust congregational singing
gave me chills, as did the congregation
standing to affirm their faith with the
Apostle’s Creed. I was quickly brought
back down from heaven, though, by one
of the pastor’s facial ticks and rocking
motions during the responsive reading. It
seemed he was trying to get his child’s attention
in the front row by pulling faces;
he certainly garnered my rapt attention.

Warmth and connection returned
during “The Living Church” portion of
the service. On this week the City College
and Career director spoke about this
vibrant ministry of the church and invited
folks in this demographic to weekly
meals and Bible Studies. The pitch was
heartfelt, theological, and brief, pointing
to the connection between the worshiping
body and their journey together as
disciples. The hospitality for this demographic
was borne out by all the young
adults sitting around me.

Moving to the offering, the wall of
women emerged to collect our tithes and
visitor cards. I laboriously filled mine
out, hoping a pew-mate would notice and
welcome me. No smiles or greetings were
offered when I passed the plate.

Scripture was woven throughout
the liturgy, with a Psalm used as a call
to worship, a reading from Judges, and
then, at the end of the liturgy, the sermon.
The preaching moment came at the
end of the service, not in the middle as is
typical for many Reformed churches.

Oh, to be a preacher at Tenth where
the congregation expects a sermon of at
least forty-five minutes! Accustomed to a
prayer for illumination, scripture reading,
and then the sermon, it took me several
minutes to recognize and tune in
to the expository preaching style of Dr.
Ryken, who has served as Senior Minister
since 2000. The preaching was solid,
linking an introduction to the context of
Paul and Corinth to the specific context
of the famous 1 Corinthians 13. Focusing
on only the first three verses, Dr.
Ryken wove in references to the Gospel
of Mark and Exodus to reinforce his thesis
that there is hope for loveless sinners,
but only if one welcomes Jesus’ love into
one’s heart. There was a lengthy subtext
on the need for confession in order to
prepare one’s heart, which seemed odd
since the liturgy didn’t model that act. It
was apparent that Scripture is taken seriously
not only by the preacher but by
the congregation, as many had their own
Bibles or the English Standard Version
in the pew open and notepads in hand.
Worship concluded with another rousing
hymn, More Love to Thee, and a wonderful
Bach postlude.

Sensing the hospitality and vibrancy
of the congregation both before and during
worship, I attempted to look lost and
elicit connection afterwards. It turned
out there was no coffee that day, just a
meal for young professionals. As worship
concluded I sensed that I had entered a
space set apart from the Philadelphia I
call home. I experienced welcome but not
embrace. Standing at the door of the narthex,
I was ushered out by a wall of male
pastors who heartily shook my hand and
sent me out onto the sidewalk.

I re-entered the bustle of city life a
bit confused. How can a church that is
so vibrant in terms of raising up the next
generation to proclaim the gospel ignore
the voices and gifts of half the population
sitting in the pews? The words from the
young woman and Dr. Ryken were rolling
through my mind as both preached, both
testified to God’s work in our world. Yet
the ethos of the church defined strong
walls built to protect. I’m still mulling
over those walls, but thankful that the
Spirit moves through and around them,
shaping and challenging a church that
remains committed to serving God in an
urban context. I’m curious how the Spirit
as architect will continue to subvert and
shift Tenth and her ministry over the
next hundred years.

The Church Review series aims to explore current
worship and preaching practices at different Reformed
and Presbyterian churches around North America.
Some of these are “traditional,” some “innovative,” but
together they represent a cross-section of the current
Reformed scene. Reviewers present factual data about
the churches they visit along with their own reflections
upon what they observed.

Susan Sytsma Bratt is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian
Church USA, currently serving as a pastoral
resident at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Bryn
Mawr, Pennsylvania.